Employer health insurance mandate on Colorado ballot
■ A skirmish between unions and business groups has led to competing constitutional amendments.
By Doug Trapp — Posted Sept. 22, 2008
Washington -- A constitutional amendment on the ballot in Colorado would require employers with 20 or more workers to provide health coverage to employees. Voters there will consider this initiative and about a dozen other amendments in November.
The health insurance mandate, known as Amendment 56, is sponsored by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, which represents workers in Colorado and Wyoming. This union and others in the state also are supporting non-health care amendments aimed at protecting workers.
Under Amendment 56, employees would not pay more than 20% of their premiums and not more than 30% of the premiums for their dependents. Employers either could provide health insurance or contribute to a new state authority that will contract with private plans to provide coverage. The initiative authorizes the Colorado Legislature to work out additional details.
The amendment targets larger employers who do not already provide health insurance, said Manny Gonzales, a UFCW Local 7 spokesman. The amendment shouldn't put these companies at a competitive disadvantage, he said. "A healthy work force equals a healthy business. In turn, that equals a healthy economy."
But the mandate will adversely affect tens of thousands of state businesses employing hundreds of thousands of workers, said Dan Pilcher, a Colorado Assn. of Commerce and Industry senior vice president. "The impact on Colorado's business climate is going to be horrendous."
Pilcher said the amendment would encourage businesses with slightly more than 20 employees to cut jobs, discourage businesses from relocating to Colorado and prompt affected businesses to cut back on wages, training and other expenses.
The health insurance mandate and other union-backed initiatives are a reaction to Amendment 47, another initiative on the Colorado ballot that would prohibit unions from requiring new employees to join a union and contribute financially to it. That amendment is supported by the CACI and other business organizations. CACI board member John K. Coors, CEO of CoorsTek, a manufacturer of specialized ceramics, plastics and metals, is a key supporter of Amendment 47, Pilcher said.
The "right to work" concept behind the union-regulating amendment would greatly erode unions' ability to bargain collectively for workers, but it's not a new idea, Gonzales said. "Right to work is something that's been fought for generations."
Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr., a Democrat, has asked both sides to withdraw their amendments and to de-escalate the conflict. Sponsors can take back amendments until Oct. 2, but Pilcher said Amendment 47 backers are unwilling to do so, and the situation remains contentious.
"It's going to be Armageddon at the ballot," Pilcher added.
Gonzales said the unions aren't sure with whom to negotiate because certain business organizations, such as the Denver Chamber of Commerce, oppose the right-to-work amendment. Pilcher acknowledged that the initiative has split the business community in Colorado.
The Colorado Medical Society has not taken a position on the health insurance mandate but is studying the initiative, a society spokesman said.
Colorado is not the first state to consider requiring employers to cover workers. Several states are mulling such options or already have mandates on the books. AMA policy does not address employer mandates, and state medical societies typically have not taken positions on them.
Several of these mandates have faced legal challenges that have produced conflicting rulings. In some cases, courts concluded that employer mandates run afoul of the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act.
Pilcher said the union-backed amendments might all be adopted, especially if Sen. Barack Obama (D, Ill.) draws more Democrats to the polls. Gonzales is optimistic about the amendments' chances.